Thinking Abundantly

June 09, 2017
Rabbi Elliot J. Cosgrove

B’ha·a lot’kha

Before you lift your head off the pillow in the morning, before you get out of bed or use the washroom, even before you check your iPhone, you must, according to tradition, recite the words Modeh ani l’fanekha melekh hai v’kayam, she-hehezarta bi nishmati b’hemlah, rabbah emunatekha, “Thankful am I to You, living and eternal sovereign, for Your kindness in restoring my soul; how abundant is Your faithfulness!” To wake up in the morning, to see the dawn of a new day, to have one’s soul returned in order to experience the miracle of creation yet again, this is an event worthy of daily appreciation and thanksgiving. As my classmate and colleague Rabbi Shai Held once explained, the syntax of the Hebrew sentence speaks to the theology at hand. The first word, modeh, meaning “to give thanks” is stated before the first person pronoun ani, as if to say that it is the act of giving thanks, of expressing appreciation that makes us who we are, defining us as human. Much in the same way as the story of creation is punctuated by God’s repeated refrain of ki tov, “it was good,” – so too, every human being, created in the image of the divine, must pause to reflect on the good, offer appreciation, and give thanks for the blessings – major or minor – of our existence.

Up until this week’s parashah, things have been pretty good for the Israelites. We are in the book of B’midbar, which translates not as “Numbers,” but rather as “In the Desert,” which is exactly where the Israelites now find themselves. With very few exceptions, most notably the Golden Calf, things have been, literally and figuratively, marching along. Liberation from Egypt, the crossing of the sea, the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai, and the construction of the mishkan, the desert tabernacle designed to house God’s presence. The Israelites are assembled in formation, Va-y’hi binsoa ha-aron, the Ark of the Covenant leads the Israelite camp as they journey towards the Promised Land. Not once, not twice, but no fewer than seven times, the word tov, meaning “good,” or its variant is used in the final verses of Numbers chapter 10 to describe Israel’s state of affairs. Things are, it would seem, pretty good . . . pretty, pretty, pretty good.

And then, without warning, the bottom falls out. Numbers chapter 11, a chapter whose title could not be more appropriate. First, the Israelites complain about the manna, the food provided to them by God, complaints that prompt Moses to cry out to God for being tasked with leading a stiff-necked people. Then, in chapter 12, Miriam and Aaron criticize both Moses’s choice of spouse and his leadership. In chapter 13, twelve spies are sent to scout out the Promised Land; ten return claiming that the land cannot be conquered – a report that results in prolonging the desert wanderings to forty years. Soon enough Korah and his followers lead an open rebellion against Moses. While the rebellion is put down, Moses’s building frustrations burst forth as Israel cries out for water, and Moses lashes out at the rock, striking it when he was told to speak to it, a deed that will result in his being barred from entering the Land. The story does not get better; there are battles lost, apostasy at Baal Pe’or – one frustration after another, for Israel, for Moses, and presumably, for God as well.

Why did the bottom fall out? Explanations abound. Our tradition suggests that while the Israelites were indeed freed from the physical restraints of their Egyptian bondage, psychologically and emotionally, they remained enslaved. No matter the miracles experienced and Torah received, after hundreds of years of oppression, the Exodus generation was simply ill-equipped to navigate the freedoms of their newfound existence. Another, somewhat related explanation, most recently offered by Dr. Adriane Leveen, is that the root of Israel’s discontent is to be found in their misremembering their Egyptian slavery. In the austerity of their desert environs, the Israelites created an alternate memory of their past, remembering not the taskmasters and harsh labor, but the plentiful fish, the cucumbers and melons, all those things that, whether or not they actually ever existed, were recalled as far more desirable than their present desert drudgery.

Both explanations are good ones. There is much to be said for the first, namely, that you can take the Israelite out of Egypt but you can’t take the Egypt out of the Israelite. No question, the Exodus generation was not poised to enter Canaan. So too, it makes intuitive sense that the Israelites, no different than you or I, suffered from a trick of memory – longing for a yesteryear which was neither as good nor perhaps as real as they recalled it to be.

A third explanation is also possible. To say it most simply: somehow, somewhere along the way, the Israelites stopped appreciating the blessings of their lives. There was, objectively speaking, tov – good – to be had all around. They were liberated, they were God’s chosen, they were en route to Canaan. And  in spite of all this, all they could see, all they could focus on, was what was wrong, what they didn’t have, where they, Moses, or God fell short. The text describes the nation with a very curious word: k’mit’onnenim, sometimes translated “as if in mourning,” which is to say, that Israel, like a mourner, was defined not by what they had, but by what they had lost. There was “a rabble that broke out in their midst,” a phrase that could be read to mean that within every Israelite there developed a toxic and corrosive sentiment that goaded them to consider their reality solely in terms of scarcity, of what they wanted to possess, not of abundance, what they actually did possess.

It was, if you will, the precise inverse of the Passover song Dayeinu. At the seder we sing verse by verse recounting every act of God: Ilu hotzi·anu, had God only taken us out of Egypt – Dayeinu, that would have been enough for us (and so on and so forth). Here, in the Torah itself, it is just opposite. Neither the splitting of the sea, nor the giving of the Torah, nor the gift of the Sabbath – none of it was enough. That is the cause, the root of the malady that afflicted Israel. Not enough food, not enough power, not enough honor, all symptomatic of a deficiency at the core of this generation. The villain in these chapters is the Israelite soul itself. Not that everything was perfect; it wasn’t, there were challenges to be confronted. But there was also good – a lot of it – and Israel failed to appreciate it. And because they failed to see the promise in their midst, they were deemed unfit to enter the Promised Land.

Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote, “Mankind will not perish for want of information; but only for want of appreciation.” (God in Search of Man, p. 46) As a philosopher of religion, Heschel meant to signal that it is not doubt, but wonder and appreciation that is at the root not just of knowledge, not just of the religious experience, but of life itself. As Jews, we are meant to fill our lives with blessings, at least one hundred every day; to see the extraordinary in the ordinary; and to find the sacred in the mundane. And yet, far too many of us, far too often, go through life like passengers on a train viewing the blur of the passing countryside. We fail to appreciate the moments of awe and wonder that are ever-present were we to only pause and take notice.

No different than the Israelites of old, we know – I know – that it is easy, far too easy, to go through life focusing not on what we do have but on what we don’t have. The person who slighted us, the office politic that diminished us, the hurt that though it did not break us, we can’t quite seem to let go. To be sure, if you are sitting in this room on the Upper East Side, odds are your problems are good problems. But all of us, nevertheless, have problems: loss and heartache, setbacks and stumbles. As a friend said to me the other day, if you think a person doesn’t have tsuris (woes), then it means that you don’t yet know that person well enough. We all have tsuris – in our families, in our careers, in our health, and otherwise. Blessed as we may be, there is tsuris. Given its inescapability, the only question becomes whether we allow that tsuris to define our being. Do we understand ourselves by what we have or by what we have lost? Shall we adopt, to use managerial terms, a mentality of abundance or one of scarcity? The latter we know will yield a state of perpetual dissatisfaction, hurts sustained, and wrongs anticipated, and a belief that life is a zero-sum game. What you have is by definition what I don’t. The alternative, to adopt a mentality of abundance, is not to turn a blind eye to the imperfections of the world and humanity in which we find ourselves. Rather it is the conscious and intentional choice not to let those imperfections define and consume our being. There are enough, more than enough, blessings to go around, there is much for which to be thankful. As Ben Zoma teaches in Pirkei Avot (4:1), wealth is defined by one who is happy with their portion, a measurement that is ultimately left to each of us to determine.

As June rolls around, as the weather turns warm, and the gushing stream of Bnei Mitzvah begins to slow, I cannot help but reflect on the year gone by – for me, for my family, and here in this room, for our community. As with every year, there have been moments of profound joy and proud successes as well as sorrows and setbacks. If I have any regrets, it is not so much any single low; as in my retirement account, ups and downs come with the territory. What I regret, what I wish I could do better but fall short in far too often, is that I allow myself to see the cup half-empty instead of half-full. A hurt harbored beyond its due, a disappointment indulged, and worst of all, the good that abounds eclipsed or overlooked.

My cup, I know, is not half half-empty. Nor, for that matter, is it half-full. My cup runneth over. My children, my wife, my life, our community – there is so much for which to be grateful. It has been a fabulous year for the synagogue and, notwithstanding a few challenges, the best is still yet to come. We cannot reach the Promised Land unless we allow ourselves to see the promise that sits right in front of us. So let us open our eyes to that which we do have, appreciate it deeply, and express our gratitude. Modeh ani l’fanekha . . . modim anahnu lakh. I am grateful . . . we are grateful to You, God our creator, al kulam, for it all, each and every bit of it.